Tailpipe Politics: The Lessons (So Far) of 2013

Here's what you can learn about Obama's climate agenda from the EPA's new effort for cleaner air.

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Jason Reed / Reuters

President Barack Obama walks past a Chevy Volt electric car as he tours the Argonne National Lab near Chicago, March 15, 2013.

The EPA unveiled its new anti-smog rules on Friday, prompting the usual Republican complaints about President Obama’s war on free enterprise, along with the usual dire warnings of higher prices at the pump. The rules will raise gas prices, but less than a cent a gallon. Meanwhile, by 2030, they’ll avoid an estimated 2,400 annual premature deaths, prevent 23,000 respiratory illnesses in children, and reduce tailpipe emissions by the equivalent of taking 33 million cars off the road.

I’m not too interested in the umpteenth fight between the president and the anti-environmental GOP. But it’s worth noting that one of Obama’s lasting legacies will be much cleaner cars on American roads. He doubled fuel efficiency standards for U.S. cars and trucks, the most important action ever taken to reduce our dependence on foreign oil. His 2009 stimulus bill jump-started our electric-vehicle industry—it actually created a domestic EV battery industry from scratch—as well as our advanced biofuels industry, while funding unprecedented research into the batteries, biofuels, and other clean-car technologies of tomorrow. And now this.

(MORE: The U.S. Will Be an Oil Giant Again. But It Won’t Be Energy Independent)

There are three lessons here:

1: Deeds > Words. I still think the most important thing to know about Obama, who was often dismissed as a words guy when he started running for president, is that he’s turned out to be a deeds guy.  This is especially true when it comes to energy and climate, even though some Ivory Soap enviros will never be satisfied with 99.44% purity. For example, Obama didn’t say much about global warming in his first term, but he did double U.S. generation of renewable power, partly by investing $90 billion in wind, solar and other clean energy sources in the stimulus, partly by approving the first three dozen renewable-electricity projects on federal land. It’s not a coincidence that our oil imports and carbon emissions are at their lowest levels in two decades, or that Tesla Motors—which just turned its first profit—has announced it will repay its federal loan five years early. Similarly, Obama didn’t make a big fuss about the tailpipe standards, but they’re going to have a big impact on air quality.

It’s interesting that Obama did include a lot of green words in his second inaugural address, which seemed to make some enviros even happier than his supposedly inadequate green deeds. Like him or not, Obama tends to do what he says he’s going to do.These anti-smog regulations were the first green example in his second term; a crackdown on carbon-belching power plants could be next.

(MORE: Obama Talked Climate Change in His Inaugural Address. Now Can He Do Something About It?)

2. California Leads the Way. For all the GOP caterwauling about Obama’s hostility to business, the auto industry actually supported his new tailpipe regulations. That’s largely because automakers already have to comply with California’s tailpipe regulations, which inspired the federal rules; they’d rather have standard rules for the entire country. Fuel efficiency standards were a similar story: California led, and the nation followed. It’s happening with energy-efficiency standards for many appliances as well. If only someone had written a cover story four years ago warning that California, despite a host of premature obituaries, was still America’s future.

Oh, right. For what it’s worth, California recently launched a cap-and-trade regime.

3. Big Oil Is the Enemy. The auto industry might support the new rules, but the oil industry is fighting them. The oil industry fought Obama’s fuel efficiency standards, too, because they don’t want Americans to guzzle less gasoline. Big Oil even fought Obama’s temporary moratorium on Gulf drilling after the BP spill. It fights anything that could even slightly dent its profits, which, incidentally, amounted to $118 billion last year, if you only count the five biggest petro-giants.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone when oil companies push to sell oil. But the burning of that oil is heating up the planet at an increasingly terrifying rate. Our addiction to that oil, while decreasing during the Obama era, is still an expensive and dangerous habit. Our economy’s vulnerability to oil shocks is still a national scandal. It is not an exaggeration to say that what’s good for Big Oil is bad for us. Big Oil likes high gas prices. Where do you think the money goes?

(MORE: Why the Debt Crisis Has Trumped the Climate Crisis—at Least in D.C.)

Which leads me back, once again, to the Keystone pipeline. Big Oil wants it very badly. The smarty-pants all say it doesn’t really matter, because the filthy tar sands are going to come out of the ground whether Obama approves the pipeline or not. Which makes you wonder: Then why does Big Oil want it so badly? It’s true that rejecting the pipeline isn’t as important to the climate fight as imposing tough new carbon regulations on coal plants, but there’s no reason Obama can’t do both. He’s in a war with Big Oil, whether he likes it or not, and Keystone is a battle he can win.